Last Thursday Lebanon said that it would ask the U.N. to stop registering refugees from Syria, “as it formalized a decision to all but close its borders to them.”
“No more refugees will be allowed to cross the border except for extreme humanitarian cases,” Lebanon’s Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said to the Lebanese parliament.
This summer, as fighting escalated between the Lebanese army and Syrian militants near the border town of Arsal, there were a rash of revenge attacks on Syrian refugees, including setting refugee tents on fire.
Lebanon is currently home to at least 1.1 million Syrian refugees, making up a quarter of the country’s population of 4 million people. Six and a half million Syrians (50% of the population) inside the country are currently displaced and over 3 million have fled. In the last six months in Lebanon, the majority of the refugees entering have been displaced more than once.
Ninette Kelley, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Lebanon, said the country has been restricting the entry of Syrians since August. UNHCR has repeatedly asked the international donor community to help relieve the burden on Syria’s neighboring countries – namely Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon – who currently host 96 percent of the Syrian refugee population.
Kelley spoke to Syria Deeply about the escalating crisis and its implications for Syria, Lebanon and the region at large.
Syria Deeply: What are the implications of the decision to sharply limit the number of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon?
Kelley: Lebanon has said it simply cannot continue to receive 10,000 refugees every week, which is what they were doing. To put that in perspective, 10,000 refugees coming to the border is what Canada receives in a year. When you couple the pressures of an additional 1 million people to a population of 4 million, in addition to the pressures they put on an already fragile infrastructure and strain on public service provisions (healthcare, education, water sanitationband electricity) and add to that the economic reverberations of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon that has resulted in a loss of trade revenues, investment and decline in consumer confidence, all of this has been an enormous shock that makes it difficult for Lebanon to stay stable and secure.
It’s also the case that people who increasingly find it difficult to flee dangerous areas are enormously impacted by decisions of this kind, whether they are in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. Our offices throughout the region, including inside Syria, are struggling to meet humanitarian needs, which are of a magnitude that eclipse any other humanitarian disaster we’ve seen in recent memory.
The consequences are a result of what is happening inside Syria that reverberates in many different ways in the surrounding areas as well.
Syria Deeply: How has the environment towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon changed over the course of the past year?
Kelley: We definitely saw an increase in concern at the very local level about the ability of local communities to continue to absorb and provide protection and assistance to an ever-increasing refugee population. There are some communities where there are more refugees than Syrians. As the numbers increased, those insecurities grew. We saw incidents of violence against refugees, which was often precipitated by a security incident that affected the country as a whole, most notably the events in Arsal in August, which led to concerns around the whole country in terms of Lebanon’s own stability and a growing intolerance for continuing to shoulder such a load.
The real story for us is that, over three years into the conflict, refugees still continue to live alongside Lebanese communities with a show of hospitality and generosity that is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Syria Deeply: Can you give me an example of the implications of lack of donor funds and how it has led to targeted assistance for Syrian refugees in Lebanon?
Kelley: The Syrian population is like any other population, which has needs for primary healthcare but also secondary and chronic care and hospitalization. The healthcare system [in Lebanon] is largely privatized and relatively expensive. Given the needs of the population, we are simply unable – we don’t have the funds – to meet the secondary healthcare needs of most refugees. Our targeting of assistance is very narrow; it is for those who need emergency life-saving care. That alone costs us over $3 million every month – it is not sustainable in the longer term. There are many people that live with disabilities that could be prevented or eased with more medical care, but suffer for the absence of it: children who can’t hear because they don’t have a hearing aid. People who need chronic medication who can’t receive it and therefore their conditions become life-threatening. People who need prostheses to be mobile but cannot access them. This is not to mention the psychological needs of so many people who have been deeply scarred by what they have seen and what they continue to experience in exile.
Syria Deeply: Have any Syrian refugees been given entry to Lebanon since the government asked the U.N. to stop registering refugees?
We don’t register at the border; we have registration centers in the country. The number of people approaching our registration centers has decreased substantially in recent weeks, anywhere between 75% and 90% on a given day. We’ve also witnessed a reduction in traffic of people approaching the border to enter as refugees.
Syria Deeply: How has the Lebanese government supported Syrian refugees to date?
Kelley: Keep in mind that the Ministry of Public Education included refugees in public schools from the outset, even when the number became very large. There are close to 400,000 Syrian refugee children that need an education. The minister of education recently announced that he is opening up 100,000 places in the first shift of schools and will also take in refugee children in a second shift with support from humanitarian organizations.
If you talk to the Ministry of Public Health, they continue to pay bills for treatment of refugees that refugees can’t afford to pay. There are many areas where the contributions have been tremendous in terms of helping Syrian refugees.
Syria Deeply: How hard has it become for the average Syrian family, with no special means or connections, to flee and find safety from the country’s war?
Kelley: It’s becoming more and more difficult. It’s why we want to encourage states to do more to share the burden, with more resettlement places and more flexible admission policies. The needs inside Syria are enormous – there are over 6.5 million IDPs – reports of last year said that 75% of the population live in poverty, with half of that number living in extreme poverty. The circumstances inside Syria continue to deteriorate and the level of violence within the country does not diminish. The Independent Commission that recently tabled its report last August spoke about the tremendous violations of human rights throughout all parts of Syria.
Syria Deeply: What are some possible solutions for countries to help Syrians seeking refuge?
Kelley: They could pledge more places for resettlement, provide more opportunities for young people to study in their countries, temporary protection programs, relax admission criteria, relax the criteria associated with visas that often restrict the entry of Syrians, they could provide for family reunification. There are many different ways and that will be the focus of our December meeting that will be called by the High Commissioner for Refugees.
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